What would John Key have done in David Cunliffe's position this week? Labour Party members must be asking themselves that question and they probably know the answer. Facing persistent questions on something he had denied, a more cautious leader would have suspected he might be wrong. Cunliffe could have said something such as, "I don't recall ever assisting a residency application for Donghua Liu but in view of these questions I will check my records".
That is not Cunliffe's style, it sounds more like ... David Shearer. Less than a year after Shearer relinquished the leadership, Labour's prospects have gone from bad to worse. This week a Herald-DigiPoll survey found the party on 30 per cent, 20 points behind National. Polls the previous week for One News and 3 News had almost exactly the same figures. A fourth poll, published on Thursday, was worse. Labour had dropped to just over 23 per cent.
This is abysmal for a major party just three months out from an election. Now that they are inside the three months, Labour MPs can change their leader if necessary without reference to the wider membership and affiliated unions whose votes put Cunliffe into the leadership last year. This week, Cunliffe said the Labour movement had a word for any such move against him. The caucus would have recognised that veiled reference to "scabs" as a rallying call to the unions and left-wing members. When its leader has to resort to that sort of talk, Labour is in disarray.
It is scarcely thinkable that the caucus would change its leader again this close to an election, but when they see a poll as low as the latest one, members begin to fear for their seats. That prospect can be a persuasive reason to look for a new leader. In fact, MPs may be keener for a change than any ambitious member is keen to take the leadership at this late stage. The best that could be expected is defeat by a lesser margin.
For the Greens and other parties on the left, Labour's troubles are a mixed blessing. When one of the big parties is at a low ebb, small parties can do very well. In 2002, when National was making little impression against Helen Clark's Government, many National voters went to Act, United Future or New Zealand First. This year, the Greens, Internet-Mana and New Zealand First stand to gain Labour votes. But they would need to do more than cannibalise intending voters to form a Labour-led government. They need to attract previous non-voters and that may be less likely if Labour looks poorly led.
With no alternative leader coming forward, the party's only hope is that Cunliffe can be an effective campaigner. There were signs in the leadership contest last year that he might be. His supreme confidence and his theatrical gestures could shine in television debates. But stubborn pride could be his undoing if it prevents him admitting uncertainty or conceding he could be wrong, as it did on the Liu letter this week.
He tried to show the caucus was behind him but it was not convincing. Labour MPs do not appear surprised at events. What will be surprising is if Cunliffe can recover to remain Labour leader after September 20.